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Painting Matters

| September 12, 2011

title
On Stages/In Stages," at the Cornelia Street Café, 29 Cornelia Street, NYC, Sept. 1-30

A new exhibit in New York City this month highlights the work of women behind the scenes in theater—artists whose work you may not even know existed.

In life, clothes may or not may not make the man or woman. But in theater and film, dance and opera, circus and spectacle, costumes can establish context; locate time, place, and social status; advance plot and action; express character; enhance personality. More than one performer has been quoted as conceding that putting on the costume is like stepping into the skin of the character; it gives a needed jolt to the acting psyche.

That costumes are designed is well known; Oscars and Tonys and Emmys are awarded for it. But what happens after the designer has presented the sketch? Certainly drapers and finishers and seamstresses will turn cloth into clothes, but just as certainly, the material for a costume like Spiderman’s, to take just one example, is not going to be available at the local fabric store. How does it get to look like that?

It’s painted.

Costume painting is a highly specialized art practiced by only a few people in a few places. It was virtually invented back in the 1970s by two legendary women of the theater. Costume designer Willa Kim needed something extra to realize her designs for the Joffrey Ballet; Sally Ann Parsons, then a draper, worked with Kim on ways to precisely apply dyes suspended in gum so that the fabric could be steamed for colorfastness.

By 1980, Parsons had her own costume shop, the renowned Parsons-Meares, Ltd., and the contract to build the costumes for Cats. She assembled a team of costume painters who pushed the envelope of what was possible. They created new tools and new ways to apply them—wax resist, shibori, stencils, sponges, airbrushing, silkscreen, rollers, and more—perhaps to make a costume look old and threadbare, or to turn a character into a cat, or a railroad train, or a flying super-hero. All in the service of realizing the designer’s vision, whether for Broadway, ballet, ice shows, parades, even Radio City Music Hall spectacles.

Yet except in the circumscribed world of theater production, costume painting is little known and has been long overlooked—until now. An exhibit entitled On Stages/In Stages, The Art of Costume Painting, features hand painting on fabric by five premier Parsons-Meares costume painters—samples they created for a range of productions. The samples are framed in 14 shadow boxes, each representing a different show. The exhibit runs through September at the Cornelia Street Café in New York’s Greenwich Village.

Mary Macy is one of the painters represented. A veteran who has taught at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Macy explains how the process “starts with white fabric.” The first step is to “get the colors right,” she says, mixing them to match the designer’s sketch and incorporating what the painter may have learned in researching the period or style. The heart of the matter is the sample the painter then makes, “trying to mind-read the designer, to figure out how to interpret the image the designer wants.” It takes “a series of meetings and conversations and changes” to do that, says Macy—the “stages” of the exhibit’s title. For one thing, “designers sometimes don’t know what they want.” Or, seeing the sample prompts fresh thinking. “Our job,” says Macy, “is to pull out of them a sense of what the costume as a whole should look like—and make it a physical reality.”

She is not sure it is art, but visitors to the Cornelia Street Café—as well as all those audience members—are likely to disagree. On Stages/In Stages, The Art of Costume Painting—Parsons-Meares, Ltd. Featuring hand painting on fabric by: Virginia Clow, Claudia Dzundza, Mary Macy, Margaret Peot, Parmelee Welles-Tolkan. Through September 30: The Cornelia Street Café (29 Cornelia Street, New York, NY, 212 989-9319)

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